Always wanted to try winter camping but didn’t know where to start? Here’s what you need to know before you go!
By Kraig Becker
For many experienced outdoorsmen and women, the very idea of winter camping sounds terrifying. After all, the idea of spending the entire time outside in cold conditions seems like it could be very uncomfortable. But as it turns out, winter camping can be just as rewarding (and fun) as it is any other time of the year, provided you have the right gear, use some common sense, and are willing to embrace your sense of adventure.
If you’ve always wanted to give winter camping a try, but weren’t sure where to start, we’re here to help. Here’s what you need to know before setting out on your first cold-weather camping excursion.
When embarking on a winter camping trip you’ll be bringing along much of the same gear that you would at other times of the year, although some of it will be specifically suited for cold weather outings. For instance, you’ll need to bring a tent to serve as your shelter, but that tent should be a four-season model made for winter conditions.
On most camping trips you use a three-season tent, which is built for use in warmer weather and offers improved ventilation. But in winter, it’s all about staying warm and a four-season tent offers better protection from the wind and cold. A good example of this type of tent is the Nemo Equipment Kunai, which was built with winter backpacking trips in mind.
In addition to a warmer tent, you’ll also want to bring a sleeping bag with a proper temperature rating as well. During the warmer months campers can get by with a sleeping bag that is rated for 35ºF or even warmer, but in the winter that won’t cut it. Instead, look for a bag that is made for use in temperatures of 20ºF or lower. Better yet, play it safe and go with a 0ºF bag as it will give you a bit of wiggle room should temperatures drop unexpectedly.
Quick Tip: Cold conditions can cause a butane stove to become very inefficient, as the gas canisters have trouble vaporizing in temperatures below freezing. Keep your gas canisters warm by placing them at the foot of your sleeping bag overnight or switch to a white-gas stove for winter trips instead.
Pair your sleeping bag with an insulated sleeping pad as well and you’ll have a complete sleep system to keep you cozy all night long. The Therm-a-Rest Questar 0ºF bag and NeoAir All Season SV sleeping pad make a formidable winter camping combination.
Obviously, warm clothes will be a necessity, too, and dressing in layers will provide both comfort and versatility:
Wear warm base layers close to the skin to regulate temperature and moisture.
Add a down jacket or other insulating layer for warmth.
Cover it all in a shell jacket to provide protection from the elements.
Pack an extra layer or two just in case your clothing gets wet or you need to bundle up a bit more. Winter conditions can be a bit unpredictable and it never hurts to have emergency gear along with you just in case.
Don’t forget to bring warm socks, gloves, a hat, and winter boots to keep your fingers and toes toasty, too.
Most of the other camping gear that you own should work just fine in the winter. Your backpack, stove, cookware, and other equipment will serve the same purpose no matter the season. You may need to bring extra fuel, however, as most camp stoves don’t burn quite as efficiently in cold temperatures and you may have to melt snow and ice for drinking water.
For the most part, you can go winter camping at all of the same places that you would go camping at any other time of the year. That includes local, state, or national parks, although you may want to check the appropriate website ahead of time to ensure that all campsites are open.
Some backcountry areas may be closed due to their remote nature and heavy snow, but generally speaking there aren’t many additional restrictions on where you can set up camp during the winter.
If you’ve never been winter camping before, you may want to give it a go in your own backyard before heading out to the backcountry. This allows you to test your gear in a controlled environment, allowing you to try out your tent and sleeping bag in a controlled environment. This approach has the added benefit of allowing you to pull the plug and head inside should you find the cold temperatures are a bit too much to take.
Quick Tip: If you’re bringing any battery-operated devices with you, be sure to keep them as warm as possible. Nothing zaps the life of a battery faster than cold temperatures. Keep smartphones, cameras, and headlamps inside your jacket and sleeping bag to extend their life.
When you’re ready to venture out, check online to see if there are any local hiking or backpacking groups that go camping during the winter. It’s always nice to have some company at the campsite and experienced winter campers can provide helpful tips to help you stay more comfortable.
As with other times of the year, when you pick your campsite be sure to look for a location that can provide shelter from the elements. This can help keep your tent warmer and drier, while minimizing noise too. Avoid setting up camp directly at the bottom of the hill, as that is where cold air tends to collect and keep an eye on the conditions above to ensure you aren’t in the path of potential avalanches. These are all variables that play a role in whether or not you get a good night’s sleep, which is key to your enjoyment of any camping trip.
Before pitching your tent, tamp down the snow at the campsite to provide a more stable base underneath. This makes it easier to not only set up your shelter, but it allows you to move about more securely when inside the tent as well. Loose snow also tends to melt much more quickly, which can cause the tent floor, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag to become damp.
If you wore snowshoes and cross-country skis on your hike to camp, use them to smooth out the ground more efficiently. Alternatively, you can also use the snow to build a wall to serve as extra protection from the wind as well.
Quick Tip: Bring extra food on your winter camping trips. In cold temperatures your body burns more calories in an effort to stay warm, and you’ll want a steady supply of snacks and meals to serve as fuel.
During the winter months you don’t have to worry quite so much about where you place your campfire, although finding dry wood and kindling can be a challenge. Wood buried under the snow can still be used to make a fire, although getting one started can take a bit of extra time and patience. Bringing a windproof lighter, dry kindling (Fat Wood is great), and fire starting materials (Vaseline soaked cotton balls work nicely!) from home can help make the process easier.
It is important that you make sure your campsite is as safe and comfortable as possible. The shorter days and longer nights of winter mean you’ll be spending more time inside your tent and sleeping bag, so you’ll want the experience to be a pleasant one. Bring a book, a deck of cards, or some games to help pass the time. Chances are, you’ll be happy you did.
Finally, it is important to be both smart and safe while on a winter camping adventure.
Always alert several people about where you’ll be going and when you expect to be back before you head out. If something should happen, they’ll know where to come looking for you.
Leave a “flight plan” in your vehicle if you’re backpacking into a campsite, noting the timing of your trip, which trail you’ve taken and your final camping destination in case search-and-rescue personnel need to assist in an emergency.
Keep a close eye on the weather at all times and be prepared to head home if a sudden storm hits or temperatures fall to dangerous levels.
By monitoring conditions closely, bringing the proper gear, and embracing the winter weather, you can have an amazing backcountry experience that you won’t soon forget.
Related articles that may interest you:
About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Gear Institute, Digital Trends, OutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann.